Following the Introduction to Vigilante Day’s and Ways (see the first installment in this series), author Langford provides the reader with some history regarding our country’s early push to increase its reach toward the western edge of the continent, including the Louisiana Purchase and treaties with Britain, Spain and Russia regarding territories along the west coast and Alaska. Langford then gets to the main point of his book: describing the mining camps and nearby towns and the outlaws harassing them, necessitating the formation of vigilante groups to stop them.
Chapter IV: Henry Plummer. Langford opens this chapter describing the big rivers of the region, including the Snake, then setting the scene of a new town on that river that saw significant and rapid growth because of the 1860 gold rush: Lewiston.
“On the river, twelve miles above its mouth, at a point accessible from the Columbia by small steamboats, stands the little village of Lewiston, which, at the time of which I write, was the capital of all the vast territory that had been just organized under the euphonic name of Idaho. This territory then included Montana, which had not been organized. Lewiston, being the nearest accessible point by water to the recently discovered gold placers of Elk City, Oro Fino, Florence and Warner Creek, grew with the rapidity known only to mining towns into an emporium. In less than three months from the time the first immigrants commenced to establish a settlement there, several streets of more than a mile in length were laid out, thickly covered on either side with dwellings, stores, hotels, and saloons, chiefly constructed of common factory cotton. A tenement of this kind could be extemporized in a few hours. The frame was of light scantling or poles, and the cloth in most cases fastened to it with tacks. Seen from a distance, the town had the appearance of being built of white marble, but truly “’Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,” for upon entering it the fragility of the material soon disabused the vision and the admiration of the beholder. At night, when lights were burning in these frail tenements, a stranger would think the town illuminated. The number of drinking and gambling saloons was greatly in excess of stores and private dwellings, and to nearly all of these was attached that most important attraction of a mining town, the hurdy-gurdy. The sound of the violin which struck the ear on entering the street, was never lost while passing through it, and at many of the saloons the evidence of the bacchanal orgies which were in progress inside was often apparent in the eagerness exhibited by the crowd which surrounded the building without. The voices of auctioneers on the street corners, the shouts of frequent horsemen as they rode up and down the streets, the rattle of vehicles arriving and departing for the miners’ camps, troops of miners, Indians, gamblers, the unmeaning babble of numerous drunken men, the tawdrily appareled dancing women of the hurdy-gurdys, altogether present a scene of life in an entirely new aspect to the person who for the first time enters a mining town. It is a feature of modern civilization which cannot elsewhere be found, search the whole world over. The thirst for gold is shared by all classes. Those who are unwilling to labor, in their efforts to obtain it by less honorable means, flock to the mines to ply their guilty vocations. Hence there is no vice unrepresented in a mining camp, and no type or shade of character in civilized society that is not here publicly developed. The misfortune is, as a general thing, that the worst elements, being most popular, generally preponderate.”
Langford next describes what drew many inhabitants to Lewiston, and introduces the reader to several dark characters who figure large in his book’s tales, most prominent among them a man named Henry Plummer.
“Our civil war was raging at the time that Lewiston became a mining emporium. Sympathizers with each party fled to the mines, to escape the possible responsibilities they might incur by remaining in the States. They carried their political views with them, and identified themselves with those portions of society which reflected their respective attachments. Loyalty and Secession each flourished by turn, and were the prolific causes of frequent bloody dissensions. There was no law to restrain human passion, so that each man was a law unto himself, according as he was swayed by the evil or good of his own nature. The temptations to evil, not so numerous, were much more powerful than were ever before presented to a great majority of the immigrants. Gambling and drinking were made attractive by the presence of debased women, who lured to their ruin all who, fortunate in the possession of gold, could not withstand their varied devices.
“In the spring of 1861, among the daily arrivals at Lewiston, was a man of gentlemanly bearing and dignified deportment, accompanied by a lady, to all appearance his wife. He took quarters at the best hotel in town. Before the close of the second day after his arrival his character as a gambler was fully understood, and in less than a fortnight his abandonment of his female companion betrayed the illicit connection which had existed between them. …Soon, alas! she became one of the lowest inmates of a frontier brothel. This latest crime of Henry Plummer was soon forgotten, or remembered only as one of many similar events which occur in mining camps.
“He, meanwhile, in the pursuit of his profession as a gambler, formed the acquaintance of many congenial spirits. From their subsequent operations it was also apparent that at his instigation an alliance was formed with them which had for its object the attainment of fortune by the most desperate means. …Plummer was their acknowledged leader.
“Professional gamblers everywhere, in a new country, form a community by themselves. They have few intimates outside of their own number. A sort of tacit understanding among them links them together by certain implied rules and regulations, which they readily obey. Of the same nature, we may suppose, was the bond which united Plummer and his associates in their infernal designs of plunder and butchery. The honor which thieves accord each other, the prospect of unlimited reward for their vicious deeds, and the certainty of condign punishment for any act of treachery, secured the band and its purposes against any betrayal by its members.
“Nowhere are the conventionalities of social life sooner abandoned than in a mining camp. …The gamblers were generally known by diminutive surnames or appellations significant of their characters. I shall so designate those of them who were thus known, in this narrative.
“Prominent among the associates of Plummer at Lewiston, were Jack Cleveland, Cherokee Bob and Bill Bunton. Cleveland was an old California acquaintance, familiar with Plummer’s early history. …Cherokee Bob was a native Georgian, and received his name from the fact that he was a quarter-blood Indian. He was bitter in his hatred of the loyal cause and all engaged in it. Before he came to Lewiston he had, in an affray of his own plotting, killed two or three soldiers in the Walla Walla theatre. He fled to Lewiston to escape the vengeance of their comrades.
“Bill Bunton was a double-dyed murderer and notorious horse and cattle thief. He had killed a man at a ball near Walla Walla, was tried for murder and acquitted on insufficient evidence. He afterwards killed his brother-in-law, and in cold blood soon after shot down an Indian, and escaped the clutches of the law by flight….
“There were several others whose names are unknown, that entered into the combination formed for systematized robbery and murder at this time. …They became so formidable in numbers, and their deeds of blood were so frequent and daring, that the mining camps were awed by them into tacit submission, and witness without even remonstrance the perpetration of murders and robberies in their very midst, of the most revolting character.
Chapter V: Society in Lewiston “Towards the close of the summer of 1862, the band organized by Plummer having increased in numbers, he selected two points of rendezvous, as bases for their operations. These were called “shebangs.” They were enclosed by mountains, whose rugged fastnesses were available for refuge in case of attack.
“One was located between Lapwai and Pataha creeks, on the road from Lewiston to Walla Walla, about twenty-five miles from the former, and the other at the foot of Craig’s Mountain, between Lewiston and Oro Fino, at a point where the main road was intersected by a trail for pack animals.
“…Plummer, meantime, while secretly directing the affairs of the “shebangs” and issuing orders continually to the men, contrived to ward off suspicion from himself, and preserve the appearance of a harmless and inoffensive citizen of Lewiston. …While, therefore, he was prying into the financial condition of those with whom his profession brought him into daily contact in town, he was at the same time informing his confederates at the shebangs of every departure which boded success to their enterprise….
“The two roads upon which the shebangs were located were the only thoroughfares in the country, and not a day passed that they were not traversed by people in going to and returning from the interior mining camps, and in coming into and departing from the country. The number of robberies and murders committed by the banditti will never be known. Mysterious disappearances soon became of almost weekly occurrence. The danger which every man incurred of being robbed or killed was demonstrated by numerous escapes made by horsemen who had been assaulted and fired upon, and escaped by the fleetness of their horses. It was fully understood that whoever passed over either of these roads would have to run the gauntlet in the neighborhood of the shebangs, and people generally went prepared. Crime was fearfully on the increase all through the secluded districts which separated the river from the distant mining camps. The country itself, about equally made up of mountains, foot-hills, canyons, dense pine forests, lava beds, and deep river-channels, was as favorable for the commission of crime as for the concealment of its perpetrators.
“The two shebangs swarmed with ruffians. On one occasion a party of half-a-dozen, while riding in the vicinity of Craig’s Mountain, were stopped by a volley from the shebang, which, being harmless, was returned, A number of well-mounted robbers started in pursuit. Their party escaped by hard spurring, one of the number, to lighten his burden, throwing several large bags of gold dust into the grass. They were afterwards recovered….
“No occupation in the northern mines tested the courage and honesty of men more severely than that of Express riders. Their duties, in riding from camp to camp frequently for hundreds of miles, where there was not a dwelling, carrying large amounts of treasure, made them objects of frequent attack. Tried men were selected for this business – men as well known for personal bravery as for their adroitness in the use of weapons in personal encounter. The notoriety of this class was sufficient as a general thing to protect them from attack, unless it could be made under every possible advantage. It is a remarkable fact, and speaks as little in favor of the courage of the desperadoes, as in praise of the daring nobility of these early Express riders, that few of the latter were interrupted in the discharge of their dangerous duties. They were ever upon the alert. It was the work of an instant only, when attacked, for them to draw and discharge their revolvers, with deadly effect, and follow up the smallest advantage with the no less fatal bowie-knife. One man has been known in an encounter of this kind to kill four assailants and escape unharmed….
“In a state of society where the majority of the people depend upon vicious pursuits for a livelihood, want and destitution are the natural elements. Increase of crime in all its forms follows. All through the winter of 1861-2, and until returns began to come in from the mines the following spring, Lewiston was daily and nightly a theatre where the entire calendar of crime was exhibited in epitome. Murders were frequent; robberies and thefts constant; gambling, debauchery, drunkenness, and all their attendant evils, openly flaunted in the face of day in defiance of law. Money and food were so scarce that robbery with the sporting community became an actual necessity. How to protect themselves against it sorely taxed the wit and tried the courage of the unfortunate property holders. Canvas walls offered slight resistance to determined thieves, and life was not protected by them from murderous bullets.”
Langford then describes the murder of a popular saloon-keeper one January night, witnessed by several citizens helpless to intervene.
“The murderers passed fearlessly and unconcernedly through the crowd, no effort being made to arrest them, lest a rescue might be attempted, which would prove fatal to all concerned, and possibly result in the burning of the town. The next day, however, a meeting of the citizens was held, for the avowed purpose of punishing the murderers, and devising measures to arrest the further progress of crime.
“This was the first effort at self-protection made by the people. The moment was a trying one. All knew that the roughs were in the majority, and none were bold enough to recommend open resistance to their encroachments, for fear of consequences. Henry Plummer took an active part in the proceedings, depicting with fervid eloquence ‘the horrors of anarchy’ and solemnly warning the people to ‘take no steps that might bring disgrace and obloquy upon their rising young city.’ Known as a gambler only, and suspected by few of any darker associations, his winning manner had the effect to squelch in its inception the initiatory movement, which at no distant period was to burst forth and whelm him with hundreds of his bloody associates in its avenging vortex.”
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Excerpted from Vigilante Days and Ways: The Pioneers of the Rockies, the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming By Nathaniel Pitt Langford, published by D. D. Merrill Company in 1893. All photo illustrations added by McCall Digest.
Editor’s Note: In 1860-61, the Pony Express carried the mail along the California Trail, a route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, CA via Salt Lake that went through a small portion of southeastern Idaho. Langford refers to Express riders carrying gold dust (and likely mail) between mining camps around Lewiston; perhaps other businesses were created to transfer goods by single riders who were generically referred to as Express riders, or perhaps some Pony Express riders also worked along the Oregon Trail route, including Lewiston. In any event, as Langford describes, during this period the riders had to be tough of body and mind, ready to fight for their lives with deadly force. One famous advertisement for Pony Express riders apparently read, Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. The photo above would bear this out, as the rider looks to be in his early teens.
Cover photo: A Helena, MT saloon, circa 1890.